Alice Coltrane remains one of the landmark figures in 20th century American culture. The musician and spiritual leader spearheaded a faith-based community centered around integration and inclusivity, while rigorously maintaining what has become one of the great and remarkably prolific musical oeuvres, all while balancing a dedicated family life. She was born in Alabama and shortly moved with her family of six children to Detroit.
Encouraged by her mother, a member of the church choir, and her brother who became a professional jazz bassist, Alice’s foray into music began with early classical studies at age seven, followed up by a stint as organist at the local Mount Olive Baptist Church at age nine. By sixteen she’d been promoted to playing with the esteemed Lemon Gospel Singers at Church of God in Christ, deepening a connection to gospel music that would remain prominent throughout her eclectic musical offerings.
As the young woman’s talent and commitment to music became the centerpiece of her life, she began exploring ideas and opportunities beyond the local landscape.
In the late 1950s Alice and her then-husband Kenny Hagood, a jazz singer, spent several months in Paris. During this time she would befriend and receive guidance from pianist Bud Powell, who by then was one of the central figures in the bebop movement. Her profound dedication to the craft and infatuation with jazz lead her to a gig at the Blue Note in Paris playing intermission piano in 1960. She then, having worked a club with a mighty international reputation under tutelage from Powell and a surrounding community of important artists, returned to Detroit and its increasingly vibrant music scene.
Despite coming home with an impressive resume and prowess, she had to work tirelessly with her own trio and her duo with Terry Pollard (a fellow female artist making strides in the male dominated arena) as a recent single mother. With countless local jobs and a demanding touring schedule with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs among others, Alice was extending herself to great lengths to embolden her reputation as a player and provide for her daughter. In the summer of 1963 while on the road with Gibbs she met John Coltrane, already a dominant name in jazz.
The connection was initially quiet, but unmissable as Coltrane intimately courted Alice with his subtle words and impassioned music. They were married in 1965 and by 1967, with John adopting Alice’s daughter Michelle and the couple bearing three sons John Jr., Ravi, and Oran, they were a family of six living in the suburbs of Long Island.
Family developments coincided with artistic achievements that would define the era in jazz. Alice replaced McCoy Tyner in John’s famous quartet, placing the group at a pivot point, moving away from existing conventions and reaching for new, explorative ideas. John and Alice were on a journey of expansion together, unified and grounded in foundations of love and family while venturing bravely in search of what was beyond the boundaries of the known both musically and spiritually.
Together they manifested a belief in the sanctity of all God’s work. As John and Pharoah Sanders proclaim in chant on Cosmic Music (Alice and John’s collaborative album released after John’s death) “May there be peace and love and perfection throughout all creation,” a message and commitment to the world that the couple would masterfully translate through their unparalleled musical language.
The period in the second half of the 60s proved fruitful beyond anyone’s expectations with John’s far-reaching expressions in free jazz and the Avantgarde, Alice’s burgeoning as a bandleader and trailblazer in the evolving jazz movement, and the couple’s collective transcendence into groundbreaking spiritual and artistic realms. Their earthly journey together remained inspired throughout its short span, as John tragically passed away in 1967 at age forty, months after the birth of their youngest son.
With the death of her husband and her half brother shortly after, Alice found herself succumbing to the impact. Navigating single motherhood for the second time in less than ten years, now with four young children and pain from the loss of two of the people closest to her consuming her mental space, the thirty year old musician was destitute, despondent, and malnourished. However, as she’d done back in Detroit, she resiliently claimed the moment of loss as an opportunity for growth, paving a path that would come to define her cultural impact.
The family remained at the home on Long Island through the end of the 60s and into the early 70s, as Alice, now in charge of her late husband’s monumental estate, was navigating John’s posthumous releases, recording her own albums with the utmost artistic severity, taking care of the children, and diving deep into Eastern spiritual practice.
In 1972 the family moved to Southern California and Alice began practicing Indian religious rituals under the guidance of Swami Satchidananda, a leading guru and yogi whom she’d met in San Francisco around this time. Driven and inspired, she started frequenting Eastern faith centers in the Bay Area and traveling to India to learn the guru Sathya Sai Baba’s teachings. Having relinquished her secular life entirely, Alice was endowed with a new name inspired by these practices, Turiysangitananda. She had found yet another calling in bringing these Eastern ideas and rituals to the United States.
By 1975 she’d founded her own spiritual center at the Sai Anantam Ashram and Vedantic Center in the Santa Monica Mountains outside of Los Angeles. The responsibilities of running such a place were lofty, as the compound housed several followers who lived, ate, and practiced on the property, guided by her weekly sermons and musical offerings.
Simultaneously, her children were still young and required her constant presence and labor, plus she’d released eleven profound albums in the years since John’s death. By the same year as the ashram’s opening, she’d signed with Warner Bros. Records and had collaborated with Carlos Santana, Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, and Kenny Burrell among other icons in the field. The albums released in this era, where Alice took on duties as primary composer and bandleader, pianist, organist, and harpist (which she’d taught herself), were at the forefront of expanding the language of jazz.
They showcased rich contrapuntal theory reflecting her foundational classical music education, divine vocal expressions reminiscent of her early days as a gospel player, urgent rethinking of jazz music virtuosity, and expansive tones rooted in her newfound devotion to Eastern sounds. Alice through the end of the 70s began striding along the path she’d forged, as a musician expanding upon the ingenuity developed in her storied career, as a mother raising four children into early adulthood, and as a religious leader solidifying a community of uniquely minded individuals brought together by faith and devotion to the words and customs she preached.
During the summer of 1982 tragedy struck the Coltranes yet again as John Jr. the oldest son was killed in a car accident. Grief-stricken again after an era of relative calm in family life, Alice found solace in the music that had been with her throughout and the ashram community that was now in full swing. The Alice Coltrane sound was now one of unmistakable worship, recording with members of the Vedantic Center’s inner circle in collaboration with famous jazz players to achieve a unique and ecumenical harmony.
Her music in the 80s and beyond represents a profound attitude of openness and ethereality in a fashion only attainable by an artist who turned the music into her life and her soul into the vessel. This language of gospel, of Eastern thought and culture, of fiercely honed jazz, was manifested through a lifetime of unwavering dedication, even in times when it looked as if fate had turned its back.
“Peace and love and perfection throughout all creation,” a prayer for humanity and the cosmic world that guided Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda for her entire earthly life and continues to inspire her fans and followers to this day.
I want to be a force for good
The Music is in your heart, your soul, your spirit